Prometheus Bound Summary

Aeschylus

Prometheus Bound

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Prometheus Bound Summary

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The play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus is largely a series of speeches surrounding the Titan, Prometheus, who has defied the gods by giving humans fire. Prometheus spends most of the play chained and immobile as punishment for his actions.

The story opens with Zeus’s servants, Kratus and Bia, holding Prometheus against a mountain. Then Hephaestus, god of the forge, chains Prometheus to the mountain. Hephaestus expresses his regret, but Kratus says it is pointless to feel pity for Zeus’s enemies. Hephaestus finishes his work and leaves Prometheus with Kratus and Bia.

Prometheus calls on all of nature to bear witness to his suffering, explaining that he has the gift of prophecy. He knows everything that will happen. The Oceanids, the sea nymph daughters of the Titan Oceanus, appear and try to comfort Prometheus. Prometheus says he has foreseen that one day Zeus will need his help.

Prometheus accounts for his punishment: though he had helped Zeus in the Titanomachy, Prometheus stood in Zeus’s way when the god king decided to eliminate all humans. Prometheus assisted the humans by giving them, among other things, the gift of fire.

The Titan Oceanus arrives. Oceanus will talk to Zeus on Prometheus’s behalf, but Prometheus refuses his help.

Prometheus recounts to the audience everything he has done to help the people of Earth. Medicine, mining, agriculture, sailing—all these and more, including all the arts—have come from Prometheus.

Io, a maiden being pursued by Zeus, visits. Dressed as a cow, Io complains that a gadfly is biting her. Prometheus prophesies that Io will travel through Europe, Asia, and Africa, pursued by those who would torment her. Prometheus prophesizes that one day, one of Zeus’s children will rise up and depose Zeus, freeing Prometheus from his torment. Prometheus tells Io she will bare Zeus a child; her decedents will become kings.

Io leaves, and Prometheus, angered by Io’s suffering at the bite of the gadfly, shouts out to Zeus. Zeus sends Hermes, the god of messengers, to find out from Prometheus who will overthrow him. Prometheus refuses to tell him. Hermes says that, if Prometheus does not relent, he will be cast away, and an eagle will eat out his liver every day. Still, Prometheus is unmoved.

The play ends with an earthquake and thunder, Prometheus calling on the elements to witness his suffering, as he is cast into the abyss.

In its time, Prometheus Bound was a popular play. While some scholars now question the play’s true authorship, its origin has not detracted from the admiration many critics have of the play.

In the Romantic period, writers, in particular, identified with the character of Prometheus, who defiantly offers truth and art in the face of great potential hardship. Notably, the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s famous novel Frankenstein is “The Modern Prometheus.”

Across time, artists have often depicted the story of Prometheus in their work, showing both the process of Prometheus gifting knowledge to the people of Earth, as well as the punishment Prometheus endures as a result of his actions. In modern times, Prometheus as the fire-giver has become a symbol of the transfer of skill and knowledge; fire being passed is a recurring motif in both literature and the visual arts.